E-business software developer Siebel Systems is looking to Asia to kick-start sales of its latest customer relationship management (CRM) offering. But market research firm Gartner said Siebel could be forced to alter sales initiatives and cut prices as it faced stiff competition from rivals Oracle, Peoplesoft and SAP. Siebel said version seven of its CRM programmes, launched this month across Asia, provided lower cost of ownership than competing products. It enabled firms to set up multi-channel sales, marketing and customer service systems over the Web, as well as call centres, reseller channels and dealer networks, the company said. Brushing aside the competition, Siebel vice-president Richard Campione said: 'Siebel 7 resets the standard and raises the bar for technology leadership in CRM, from which all other applications will be measured in the next several years.' The Siebel 7 CRM suite combines about 20 application modules that help automate the sales, marketing and customer services of a company in a unified package. Mr Campione said Siebel 7 included applications for partner relationship management and employee relationship management, all based on a common Web architecture. 'By providing organisations with real-time analytical ability to track and understand both customer behaviour and key indicators of corporate performance, Siebel 7 enables organisations to be digitally wired to their customers, partners and employees,' he said. Over the past eight years, Siebel said it had invested more than US$1 billion in CRM development. Mr Campione said that represented 'thousands of person years of engineering effort and millions of lines of C++ code'. 'Siebel also employs a uniquely rigorous, customer-driven product development process that involves more than 4,000 product professionals,' he said. The new Siebel 7 embodied the collective content expertise of thousands of customers and partners that would enable users to rapidly adopt the technologies it offered and to generate a healthy return on their e-business investment, he added. Edwin Lo, managing director for Siebel's Greater China operations, said about 120 customers, including some Asian companies, were involved in testing Siebel 7 over six-months. He said CRM adoption in Greater China, especially the mainland, looked promising as the trend toward market deregulation meant that companies must strengthen their ability to keep customers and attract new ones. 'Our efforts are now focused on increasing customer awareness of how CRM can help them compete in their local markets as well as globally,' Mr Lo said. Financial services, telecommunications, manufacturing, retail, transport, utilities and government are some of the key sectors in Greater China, and elsewhere in Asia, where Siebel 7's Web-enabled architecture is expected to generate plenty of interest. A large number of information technology vendors have expressed support for Siebel 7, including call-centre specialist Avaya, BMC Software, systems integrator and consultancy Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, networking giant Cisco Systems, Compaq Computer, IBM, Palm, Portal Software and Unisys. IBM has said it planned to upgrade its existing Siebel installation, one of the largest implementations worldwide, to version seven next year. Despite the optimism for Siebel 7, Gartner forecast that the weak global software market favoured CRM products from IT vendors that specialised in enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. 'Increasingly, businesses with heavy ERP investments such as in Oracle enterprise applications for manufacturing and telecommunications firms, or SAP, for companies in manufacturing and energy, will trade off weaker CRM functions for the expected long-term benefits of lower total cost of ownership,' said Michael Maoz, a Gartner analyst for customer service and support strategies. 'The cost benefit of a transition to the new thin-client offerings in Siebel 7 is unclear to customers and they will hesitate to upgrade until the benefits are clear.' Gartner said Siebel would continue to see software price erosion and would attempt to offset that by expanding its professional-services business. Siebel is expected to focus sharply on key vertical industries such as financial services and the automotive sector for its CRM suite. Development and marketing of the other modules under Siebel 7, such as those for government, are expected to be slower and in step with market demand. For its fiscal third quarter, Siebel reported a 14 per cent drop in total revenue to US$428.5 million from US$496.5 million the previous year.